The Difficulty in the Study of Modern Philosophy. Beside the great spans of ancient and mediæval civilizations, the 450 years of the modern period seem brief. The road is indeed relatively short from mediæval times to the century in which we live, and yet it proves difficult to the student who travels it for the first time. Even for the modern mind the study of modern philosophy is inherently more difficult than that of the ancient and mediæval. The preceding periods present new points of view, but these, once attained, lead along comparatively easy ways. The chief difficulty of the preceding periods is overcome when their peculiar view of things is gained; but the student of modern philosophy is confronted with difficulties all along the way. In the first place, modern philosophy is very complex because it is a conflict of various aspirations. It has neither the objectivity of ancient thought nor the logical consistency of mediæval thought. It arises from subjective motives, whose shadings are difficult to trace. The task is rendered harder by the fact that intimations of the problems in the history of modern philosophy are on the whole present in the beginner’s mind; and yet at the same time his mind possesses, besides these, many mediæval notions as well. For the student to pass successfully through the entire length of modern thought from Cusanus to Spencer means, therefore, two things for him: (1) he must gain an insight into the depth and significance of his own half-formed ideas; (2) he must transcend or give up entirely his mediæval notions. If therefore philosophy represents the epoch that produces it,—either as the central principle or as the marginal and ulterior development of that epoch,—the modern can come to an understanding of the history of modern philosophy only by coming to an understanding of himself and his own inner reflections.
This will explain why the short period of modern thought is traditionally divided into comparatively many periods. These subordinate periods ring out the changes through which the modern man feels that he himself has blindly passed in his inner life. Modern philosophy is no more local and temporary than the ancient; it is no less a part of a social movement; but the modern man is more alive to the differentiations of modern thought than he is to those of antiquity.
The Periods of Modern Philosophy. The divisions of the history of modern philosophy are as follows:—
1. The Renaissance (1453–1690)—from the end of the Middle Ages to the publication of Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding.
2. The Enlightenment (1690–1781)—to the publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
3. German Philosophy (1781–1831)—to the death of Hegel.
4. The Nineteenth Century Philosophy (1820–the present time).
The Renaissance, the first period, covers more than half of the length of modern times. It is sometimes called the springtime of modern history, although it is longer than all the other seasons together. It is to be noted that two epoch-making books form the dividing lines between the first three periods. The transition from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment is signalized by Locke’s great Essay on the Human Understanding, which expressed for one hundred years the political and philosophical opinions of western Europe. The transition from the Enlightenment to German Philosophy was in its turn signalized by the appearance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and this book may be said to have been fundamental to human thinking ever since. There is one point further to be noticed in these divisions, and that is the overlapping of the last two periods. German philosophy ends practically with the death of Hegel in 1831, and the modern Evolution movement began at least ten years before, about 1820. No great philosophical treatise marks the division here, for the Evolution movement had its beginnings in German philosophy and in the discoveries and practical inventions of natural science. Evolution, however, became a reaction upon the last phases of German philosophy, and then formed a distinct movement. The book that formulated the Evolution movement most fully appeared several years after the theory was under way. This was Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859. Locke’s Essay and Kant’s Critique are therefore the most influential philosophical interpretations of the history of modern times since its early beginnings in the Renaissance.
The Causes of the Decay of the Civilization of the Middle Ages. The social structure of the mediæval time weakened and broke apart, in the first place because of certain inherent defects in its organism; in the second place because of some remarkable discoveries, inventions, and historical changes. We may call these (1) the internal causes and (2) the external causes of the fall of the civilization of the Middle Ages.
(a) The Internal Causes were inherent weaknesses in mediæval intellectual life, and alone would have been sufficient to bring mediæval society to an end.
(1) The intellectual methods of the Middle Ages were self-destructive methods. We may take scholasticism as the best expression of the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, and scholasticism even in its ripest period used the method of deductive logic. Scholasticism did not employ induction from observation and experiment, but proceeded on the principle that the more universal logically a conception is, the more real it is. (See vol. i, p. 355.) On this principle scholasticism set as its only task to penetrate and clarify dogma. Its theism was a logical theism. Even Thomas Aquinas, the great classic schoolman, used formal logic (dialectics) as the method of obtaining the truth. After him in the latter part of the Middle Ages, logic instead of being a method became an end. It was studied for its own sake. This naturally degenerated into word-splitting and quibbling, into the commenting upon the texts of this master and that, into arid verbal discussions. The religious orders frittered away their time on verbal questions of trifling importance. The lifetime of such intellectual employment is always a limited one.
(2) The standard of the truth of things in the Middle Ages became a double standard, and was therefore self-destructive. Ostensibly there was only one standard,—infallible dogma. Really there were two standards,—reason and dogma. The employment of logical methods implied the human reason as a valid standard. Logic is the method of human reasoning. To use logic to clarify dogma, to employ the philosophy of Aristotle to supplement the Bible, to defend faith by argument, amounted in effect to supporting revelation by reason. It was the same as defending the infallible and revealed by the fallible and secular. It was the erecting of a double standard. It called the infallible into question. It was the offering of excuses for what is supposedly beyond suspicion. The scholastic made faith the object of thought, and thereby encouraged the spirit of free inquiry.
(3) The development of Mysticism in the Middle Ages was a powerful factor that led to its dissolution. There is, of course, an element of mysticism in the doctrine of the church from St. Augustine onwards, and in the Early Period of the Middle Ages mysticism had no independence. But mysticism is essentially the direct communion with God on the part of the individual. The intermediary offices of the church are contradictory to the spirit of mysticism. It is not surprising, therefore, to find in the last period of scholasticism numerous independent mystics as representatives of the tendency of individualistic religion, which was to result in the Protestantism of the Renaissance.
(4) The doctrine of Nominalism was the fourth important element to be mentioned that led to the dissolution of the civilization of the Middle Ages. This was easily suppressed by the church authorities in the early mediæval centuries, when it was a purely logical doctrine and had no empirical scientific basis. In the later years, however, nominalism gained great strength with the acquisition of knowledge of the nature world. Nominalism turned man’s attention away from the affairs of the spirit. It incited him to modify the realism of dogma. It pointed out the importance of practical experience. It emphasized individual opinion, neglected tradition, and placed its hope in the possibilities of science rather than in the spiritual actualities of religion.
(b) The External Causes consisted of certain important events that brought the Middle Ages to a close and introduced the Renaissance. These events caused great social changes by demolishing the geographical and astronomical conceptions of mediæval time which had become a part of church tradition.
First to be mentioned are the inventions which belong to the Middle Ages, but which came into common use not before the beginning of the Renaissance. These played an important part in the total change of the society which followed. They were the magnetic needle, gunpowder, which was influential in destroying the feudal system, and printing, which would have failed in its effect had not at the same time the manufacture of paper been improved. Moreover at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century occurred the following events:—
1453. Constantinople fell and its Greek scholars migrated to Italy.
1498. Vasco da Gama discovered the all-sea route to India and thereby changed the course of the world’s commerce.
1518. The Protestant Reformation was begun by Luther.
1530. Copernicus wrote his De revolutionibus orbium, in which he maintained that the earth moved around the sun.